Tia Taylor WilliamsFor Children’s Environmental Health Day, October 10, our guest blogger is Tia Taylor Williams, director of the Center for Public Health Policy at APHA. She writes about the importance of coordination and collaboration across sectors to address the impact that the environment has on children’s health.

Our children depend on us to ensure that they have the best opportunities to achieve their full potential. A solid and expanding body of research demonstrates the importance of investing in children’s development as early in life as possible.

At the same time, there is increasing recognition of the impact that adverse childhood events, or ACEs, have on health and well-being across the lifespan. This has led to expanded investments dedicated to identifying, addressing and preventing ACEs and their resulting trauma and chronic stress on children and youth.

Numerous sectors, including education, school health and mental health, are coming together to promote and create safe, stable and nurturing environments for all children. Ironically, this coordination and collaboration across sectors does not always include children’s environmental health.

Larger efforts to address children’s social and emotional health and improve academic outcomes often overlook the effects of the natural and built environment on children’s health. Similar to trauma and chronic stress, exposure to environmental hazards has an impact on children’s physical and mental health and development.

Children are especially vulnerable to toxic environmental exposures because:

  • they breathe more air and drink more fluids per body weight than adults;
  • their immature body defense mechanisms are unable to break down toxic substances; and
  • their behavioral differences, including oral exploratory habits, limited diet choices and mobility patterns, put them in close proximity to contaminants.

These impacts are especially pronounced in children of color and children from low-income families, who are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards at home, in school and in their community.

For example, African American communities are often located in areas zoned for mixed residential, industrial or commercial use — areas at increased risk of toxic exposures. However, predominantly white communities tend to be zoned strictly for residential use.

Children of color are also at greatest risk for lead poisoning through exposure to lead-based paints and through drinking water. Unsurprisingly, these same children are at greater risk for experiencing ACEs and achieving poorer educational outcomes.

Despite parallels in affected groups, impacts and desired outcome — healthy thriving children — there is limited coordination within (e.g. public health and environmental health) and across (e.g. child development, education and environmental health) sectors.

This lack of coordination is seen and felt by the communities we aim to serve. As a part of APHA’s effort to understand the landscape of environmental health services at the state and local level, we spoke with parents and caregivers in Flint, Michigan, and Washington, D.C.

All expressed frustrations with disjointed services and the runaround they experience trying to get information and services from various agencies and organizations about the health of their children.

The parents we spoke with are predominantly African American, live in under-resourced communities and must regularly make choices between competing needs and priorities for their families. They all expressed deep concern about the impact the environment has on the current and future health of their children.

Based on their feedback, and the results of our national scan of environmental health services, improved coordination across sectors is a key recommendation in our report, Protecting the Health of Children: A National Snapshot of Environmental Health Services. This includes sustained and systemic coordination within and across sectors invested in improving outcomes for children.

The report acknowledges that, “coordination can require additional time and other resources… At the same time, coordination can save resources by reducing duplication of effort and improving efficiency. It can create a more streamlined experience for parents and caregivers, too, reducing the number of agencies they need to contact for information or services.”

Streamlined and sustained investments are needed to support the type of coordination and integration we know is needed to make meaningful progress in improving outcomes and reducing disparities among children.

On this Children’s Environmental Health Day, we encourage our partners in education, children’s mental health and school health to join forces with children’s environmental health advocates, researchers and practitioners. We can work together to create environments where all children can thrive.